Pandemic spotlights hybrid college and career programs

Claire Fisher
5 min readDec 18, 2020

College statistics are bleak this year. To date, overall applications are down 8%, and fall enrollment is several percentage points lower than it was last year.

While the pandemic affects us all, it does not affect us equally. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment numbers for students from low-income backgrounds have dropped a whopping 29%. Additionally, the completion rate for federal financial aid applications (FAFSA) is down 16% from last year.


Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable populations are even more vulnerable in a crisis. Students are reevaluating the time and financial commitment required to attend college, especially when it means moving away from home. Many students have more urgent responsibilities exacerbated by the pandemic, such as work and family caregiving. Many also feel less compelled to attend college when it’s online in their parents’ living room and so seek alternative options.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the higher education system was in crisis: small tuition-dependent institutions with low enrollment struggle to stay afloat while the burden of increasing student debt dissuades many from pursuing degrees. The past year accelerated a shift to online education and alternative training, while the socialization of these paths slowly catches up to their availability.

At The Arena Inc., we’re responding to evolving needs and the changing structure of higher education by strengthening the school to work pipeline with a career pathways tool and partnerships practice. We think about online training as a way to earn a degree or credential that tends to be more flexible, easily integrated, and cost effective. Given the data on enrollment and financial aid, these criteria matter now more than ever.

We know putting a digital program in front of someone is not an instant standalone solution. It takes support, healthy habits, accountability, and informal or formal coaching to persist.

For these reasons hybrid institutions are a hidden gem of post-secondary options, especially right now.

These organizations use a delivery model consisting of a combination of in person and online programming. The model tends to be virtual training with face to face coaching and cohort-building. The mix of flexible, cost effective, online content with wraparound services that build character strengths, increase persistence, and foster community offer efficient and supportive options so that all people may pursue college and an upwardly mobile career regardless of circumstance.

These organizations tend to fall into two camps: those that advocate for a degree, such as Duet and Rivet School, and those that advocate for a credential, such as Merit America and SV Academy, as the ultimate attainment of training or signal to employers. The former suggest that a traditional college degree is still the most valuable insurance plan and is more useful in the near and long term for career stability, while the latter suggest the same is more accurate of industry recognized credentials and more aligned career training.

Both types were primed to support students during the pandemic. How?

I. Experience. They were already working with online institutions before the COVID-19 pandemic, so their staff and students knew how to learn, teach, and coach online when everything went digital.

II. Flexibility. Their model was built to be nimble, allowing them to flex up or down on virtual and in person experiences. Again, they had systems and expectations that enabled their staff and students to adapt calmly and confidently to an all virtual experience that they can shift out of if and when safe as the rest of the country struggled to adapt.

III. Mindset. Their organizational values reflect a commitment to the most vulnerable communities and a staff and student commitment to persistence in the face of adversity, positioning them to carry on without allowing for people to fall through the cracks. They are set up to appeal to all populations, especially now.

Whether pursuing college or career training for the first time, seeking to upskill, looking to pivot in your career, or supporting someone who falls into one of the aforementioned categories, consider pursuing these alternative paths, especially now, and use our resources to find them.

In a crisis like our current pandemic, it is critical that we — operators, funders, intermediaries — all share resources and lean on each other. As noted by Macke Raymond and the CREDO team in their report, COVID-19 has led to unprecedented learning loss, and the stakes are too high to let a generation fall through the cracks.


Appendix: Extended Information on Hybrids

Want to learn more about these programs? Check them out in this 2017 EdSurge article and below:

Duet (formerly Match Beyond) in Boston, MA, formed an early partnership with Southern New Hampshire University’s online competency based program, College for America, and shortly thereafter Peloton U began operating with a similar model in Austin and Rivet School (formerly Concourse Education) in the Bay Area. They support predominantly working adults who have not been well served by the American higher education system.

Many public school networks that operate high schools and have seen the leaky pipe to and through college underdeliver for their alumni have begun to create their own in-house hybrid college programs as well, partnering with many of the same online colleges. Da Vinci Extension through Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles was the first to build a program of its kind, and now there are examples across the country. IdeaU from IDEA Public Schools operates across Texas, Next Level Nola through Collegiate Academies just launched in New Orleans, Launch through Youthforce Nola operates in New Orleans as well, and Noble Forward with the Noble Network has begun in Chicago.

Most of the organizations that use credential or career training programs focus on adult upskilling, serving a population that tends to be mid-thirties and has a clear idea of preexisting responsibilities in their lives and motivation for pursuing whatever outcome the organization offers. Merit America out of Washington DC has done this with IT certifications, while Climb Hire has bet on the Salesforce Administrator credential, Holberton School focuses on coding, Flockjay on tech sales, and SV Academy on sales and customer service, all in the Bay Area.